|MODEL NGO: Past volunteers at German-sponsored Shanti Sewa Griha, a centre for leprosy patients near Pashupatinath have described their experience as "incredibly inspiring".|
For some young westerners, Nepal appears the perfect place to combine a few weeks of well-intentioned volunteer work with some of the world's most accessible and dramatic outdoor adventures.
Type 'volunteer+Nepal' into an Internet search engine and there are any number of contacts. Projects in developing countries to occupy young volunteers in their gap years between school and university have become big business and can be expensive. Month-long programs organized through reputable outfits like Volunteer Abroad, i-to-i, or Projects Abroad, can cost more than $2,000.
That is why many students and professionals on a career break are resorting to a much more affordable alternative: surfing the net for small-scale, low-key Nepali NGOs. A few clicks of the mouse bring a plethora of placement offers in all the popular fields: conservation, health care, teaching and orphanages, with prices from as little as $250 a month.
But as these volunteering opportunities have sprung up, so too have scams and sloppily organised operations which are only too happy to take people's money, but haven't given much thought to what they should provide in return.
"I hate it when people come here with the best intentions and get ripped off by some money-minded outfit, be it Nepali or international," says a volunteer social worker who has been living in Kathmandu for several years and prefers to remain anonymous. Many leave feeling cheated and vow never to come back, giving Nepal a bad name.
"I've had people literally cry on my shoulder saying: 'I wanted to do something good but I've been let down and I've lost so much money'," says the social worker.
A typical is a girl from London who had saved up and borrowed money to volunteer. She contacted INFO Nepal, a local NGO, and paid $1,200 per week to teach in an orphanage. When she got here, she complained that the place was filthy, the children were malnourished and mistreated, some were sick, and she had to share a room with a male stranger.
Some volunteering programs are being cleverly advertised abroad. Internship Nepal, a Kathmandu-based NGO which promotes itself through the US National Press Photographers' Association as well as some US photojournalism magazines, promises foreign journalism students work placements with some of the best-regarded Nepali media, all duly listed on its website.
There is a $50 non-refundable deposit and the first month costs $500 full board. It isn't clear that the chairman of the organization is also the head of the host family, and so keeps all the money himself. Some students have joined the program only to find that nothing has been arranged for them ahead of their arrival.
Daniel Sato and Ren? Edde, two American photojournalism students who detailed their Internship Nepal mishaps on their respective blogs, arrived in the summer of 2006. They quickly smelt a rat when they found that the publications they had been assigned to were completely unaware of the program. They subsequently quit after paying $250 for a few days' stay in the NGO chairman's home.
To be sure, there are charity groups that offer genuine volunteer programs from which both Nepalis and foreigners benefit.
Haley Hunt-Brondwin, 19, from Canada, has been here for one month and is quite enthusiastic about her placement at a children's home which she got through VSN (Volunteer Services Nepal). Her program started with a proper training week including language classes, a lot of cultural information and instructions on her daily routine. "Things have been great for me, but I also met volunteers with other NGOs who had a real culture shock-they felt overwhelmed because they had no idea what living and working here would be like."
Emma Rahmin, VSN's Filipino-born founder and executive director, recommends doing an Internet search on the NGO you have picked to make sure there have not been any major complaints about it in the past. "And of course if you can, it is better to join a program once you are already in Nepal," she adds.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR
. Ask the NGO for names and email addresses of their former volunteers.
. Google the NGO you have chosen and check the results carefully.
. Avoid paying your whole fee right upon arrival if you have
. If you can, come to Nepal first and "shop around" to see what
. Post some feedback on the Internet: it will be useful to future volunteers.
The accidental tourist
Jane Diamond, a 37-year-old subtitler from the UK, is having dinner on a balcony overlooking a bustling Thamel street. She came to Nepal full of good intentions, but is now leaving dissatisfied and irritated. She had planned to work at an organic farm for five weeks but instead ended up spending $1,200 on an unintended holiday. The bad vibes had started before she even got on the plane.
"Ahead of my trip, I kept sending emails to the person in charge of WWOOF Nepal (an NGO promoting organic farming)," Jane says. "I wanted to know where my farm was and what exactly my tasks would be, but each time I got the same reply: 'Don't worry, I will guide you.' When she landed in Kathmandu, she still did not know her destination. She was finally put in touch with a farmer near Pokhara, who in turn passed her on to another farm in the Kalesti Valley, two hours east of the lakeside town.
"When I got there, there was no farm as such," she says. "The would-be farmer took me around meeting local communities, thinking I was an expert in organic farming. I tried to explain that I didn't have those skills. We both ended up feeling quite embarrassed."
Jane quit after a few days. She does not consider herself the victim of a rip-off, but does feel misled and let down.
We contacted WWOOF by email about the allegations and the reply from Faninda Regmi was: 'We are trying to reorganise WWOOF, if you come next year we won't charge you membership fees.I am sorry friend.could you excuse us."